Book Review: The Patch

From the Catalyst, Summer 2018

The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands

By Chris Turner

Simon & Schuster, 2017

Reviewed by Karri Munn-Venn

Who knew that a 319-page book on bitumen could be so captivating? The Patch is undoubtedly the best book I have read in a long time.

At once a history book, a technical account of methods used to separate oil from sand, and a socio-political commentary, The Patch expertly weaves together the personal stories of Raheel Joseph, Marvin L’Hommecourt, Maryellen Fenech, and several others whose lives are directly intertwined with the oil sands industry. Through the tales of immigrants and maritimers, transplants from Toronto and local Dene, heavy equipment operators and petroleum engineers, trappers and fishers, husbands and wives, author Chris Turner creates a compelling narrative on the complexities of life in the boreal forests of northern Alberta.

The themes of scale and pervasiveness feature prominently in this book. The immense size of a Caterpillar 797 haul truck is matched by the magnitude of the global climate crisis. Hydrocarbons from a barrel of oil are in our cars, in our skincare products, and even in gummy candies. Turner explores these themes in a beautifully nuanced way that offers insights and highlights complexities you simply will not find in the political rhetoric that swirls around the region, industry statements about jobs or growth or reforestation, or the reports of environmental organizations lamenting the devastation caused by the oil sands.

And there is one more thing: the responsibility for change is on all of us. As he concludes, Turner shares some of his own life experience and the ways in which he – as a writer, traveller, and former Green Party candidate – is also “dug in,” as he puts it, “as fully complicit in the long rule of oil as anyone. As everyone.”

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